A report by the independent team investigating the Columbia space shuttle disaster has made a number of organisational and mechanical recommendations for a return to space flight.
The board concluded the foam debris definitely caused the break-up
While backing the resumption of flight programmes by the US space agency (Nasa) "at the earliest date", the report - by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) - said safety must be "an overriding consideration".
It divided its recommendations into three main timeframes:
- Near-term: Return to flight
- Mid-term: Continuing to fly
- Long-term: Future Directions for the US in space
But the report also stressed that "even correcting all those shortcomings" would not totally eliminate the risks associated with flying into space.
Near-term: Return to Flight
The CAIB report described human spaceflight as a developmental activity which required "a shift in focus from operations and meeting schedules to a concern for the risks involved".
It said this included:
- Identifying risks by looking relentlessly for the next eroding O-ring, the next falling foam; obtaining better data, analysing and spotting trends
- Mitigating risks by stopping the failure at its source; when a failure does occur, improving the ability to tolerate it; repairing the damage on a timely basis
- Decoupling unforeseen events from the loss of crew and vehicle
- Exploring all options for survival, such as provisions for crew escape systems and safe havens
- Barring unwarranted departures from design standards, and adjusting standards only under the most rigorous, safety-driven process.
Mid-term: Continuing to fly
Although stressing that "the present shuttle is not inherently unsafe", the report said that a number of significant measures must be taken to continue "operating the orbiter for another decade or even more", including:
- Adoption by Nasa of the characteristics observed in high-reliability organisations, including the separation of technical authority from the functions of managing schedules and cost
- Creation of an independent Safety and Mission Assurance body
- Capability for effective systems integration
- Undertaking of the complete recertification of the shuttles
The report said that the implementation of the cultural changes could prove to be even more challenging for Nasa.
It said that Nasa's "cultural impediments to safe and effective shuttle operations are real and substantial", and "are unlikely to be corrected without top-level leadership".
The board said that unlike return-to-flight recommendations, the management and cultural reforms would take longer to implement, and the responses must be fine-tuned.
Long-term: Future directions for the US in space
The board said that during its investigation two major factors affecting the future safe shuttle operation had become evident:
- Lack - over the past three decades - of any national mandate providing Nasa with a compelling mission requiring human presence in space
- Lack of sustained government commitment over the past decade to improving US access to space by developing a second-generation space transportation system.
The report also said a full national debate on how to achieve "such improved access" should take place in parallel with the steps the board had recommended for returning the shuttle to flight.